This was one of two concerts to celebrate the Wihan Quartet's 25th anniversary. Both were at London’s Wigmore Hall which has become the ideal venue for young and established groups on the International scene playing chamber music for all sorts of combinations. They perform their repertoire in front of full houses; indeed, the solo pianist or violinist now finds it hard to compete with the kind of adulation afforded to a host of string quartet performers, whose four marvellously gifted players constantly delve into the inner secrets contained within the dramas and poetry of acknowledged Masterworks, discovering fresh approaches and new ways of exciting the passions of their loyal, ever-receptive audiences.

Fans of solo players and performing groups alike are now discussing diversities of repertoire, chosen with great care, respect, precision and a ‘matching artist personality’ considered to be compatible with the style and output of several composers, past and present. For instance, in their June 5 concert the Wihans started with Bohuslav Martinu’s String Quartet No. 2, completed in 1925 when the composer was living in Paris and fraternizing with the likes of Stravinsky, Honegger and Milhaud. The Arts scene generally was buzzing with new, daring ideas, and some of the departures and innovations may have derived from the impressionists or Schoenberg and his New Viennese School, or perhaps belonged to something else ‘in between’ like bitonality, with its new sounding harmonies. Dodecaphony, with its deliberate experimenting with astringencies became known as ‘way out’, but the prolific, adventurous Martinu knew exactly where his Czech roots lay. He complied with his own personal mode of self-expression that modified and condensed the Romantic outpourings and strivings of his great predecessor Antonin Dvorak to an extent that one immediately recognizes the punchiness of the rhythms that cloth the bitonal rhetoric and attractiveness of a ‘running’ course of chosen motifs that make up the whole. Audience response was immediate - why don’t we hear more of his seven quartets? I quite agree!

Rare Dvorak followed on. Considering that Dear old Antonin left many youthful, lengthy quartets for us to attempt to analyse and enjoy, No. 9 in D minor, Opus 34 is a giant step forward and features a profusion of material that calls upon a modicum of dexterous virtuosity from all four players. The writing for First Violin, for instance, contains some stretches so high up in the musical stratosphere that I wondered how Leos Cepicky was able to sustain the composer’s continuing intensity of line. But he is a magnificent player, as his colleagues all agree. The second of the four movements is a delightful Alla Polka: Allegretto scherzando, with its matching Trio: quasi l’Istesso tempo. Surely of added interest is the Wihan’s live recording at the Convent of St. Agnes, Prague on Nimbus Alliance NI 6115, coupled with the more mature Op.105 in A flat major. I will also mention its companion NI 6114 commercially recorded at Potten Hall, Suffolk: Dvorak String Quartet No.11 in C, Op. 61 c/w No.12 in F, Op. 96, ’American’ produced by my old friend Jeremy Hayes and engineered by Eric James.

The Wihan Quartet’s recording of the two Smetana Quartets (Arco Diva UP 2186-2131) took place at Domenica Studio Prague in October and November 2006. The First Quartet live Wigmore performance, with its immediacy and warm acoustic was far more charismatic, in reality a descendant of those wonderful occasions of the Smetana and Janacek Quartet performances at the Edinburgh International Festival and London South Bank during the 1950/80s. No.1 in E minor, ‘From my Life’, also chooses as its second movement an Allegro moderato alla polka, but by this stage in the proceedings I was fully cognisant of their superb attack, emphasis on precision and a renewed quality of phrasing from each quartet member. I asked the critical writer and music assessor Tully Potter for his opinion: ‘Yes. they are in their very best form.’ The overall pace was perfectly judged, the unfolding drama and tensions of the first movement prefacing the joyful, dancing lilt of the second; then the serene beauty of the slow movement making way for the boisterous, motivic finale with the high harmonic on First violin sounding the note of warning of Smetana’s approaching deafness… The work’s closing section was more heartfelt than I previously remember it.

The Coffee Concert the following morning on Sunday 6th June consisted of two works I believe I was hearing the Wihans perform for the first time: Mendelssohn’s Quartet No. 6 in F minor, Op.80 and Brahms Quartet in A minor Op. 51, No. 2. One of his final pieces, Mendelssohn’s poignant composition was inspired through the death of his beloved sister, Fanny, with the composer following in her footsteps two months later. Brahms, on the other hand, struggled endlessly to perfect the second of his three Quartets, a work which counterbalances his particular penchant for nostalgia with a rich vein of romanticism. Both performances gave the most complete satisfaction to the ever-attentive audience.

Bill Newman